Much More than a Mirror Man: John Pilger’s life of truth-telling, remembered

There was always a patina of heroism about the man: witness his life-beaten face, the heartthrob quality that irritated conservative pundits and commentators, showing him to be cocksure, stubborn, defiant. John Pilger was an insurgent journalist, the voice of the subaltern (Indigenous Australia, the working classes of industrialised states, movements of national resistance, the unmentionables), the demystifying solvent regarding absolute power and its nefarious uses. From his foxholes at The Daily Mirror and The Guardian he pamphleteered his way into the pantheon of fourth estate scribes, attaching himself to causes neglected and angles of conflict often ignored.

Pilger got a position at the Mirror in the early 1960s under the enterprising Hugh Cudlipp, supposedly boasting about cricket skills that would enable the paper to better its competitors in the inter-newspaper tournament. It did not take long for the messianic editor to send Pilger on the investigative, warring path. Cudlipp was, after all, a believer in causes and the role papers had in prosecuting them. ‘I was to return to my homeland, Australia, and “discover what lies behind the sunny face”’, Pilger recalls. It had become fashionable to attack apartheid South Africa, but what about Australia and its relationship with its Indigenous population?

Initially offended by the suggestion, Pilger confessed ‘that only the Indian Ocean separated the racial attitudes of the two colonial nations’. He flew to Alice Springs in 1969. Met the activist Charlie Perkins, the first Aboriginal man in Australia to graduate from university. Hired an old Ford and picked up Perkins’s mother, Hetti, an Arrernte elder. Headed for the ‘native reserve’ (‘Hell’, according to Perkins) known as Jay Creek. The scene was one of squalor: ‘One outside tap trickled brown; there was no sanitation; the food, or “rations”, was starch and sugar. The children had stick-thin legs and the distended bellies of malnutrition’.

The paper’s current editor, Alison Philips, called Pilger ‘the greatest of all Mirror Men’. He was one who ‘believed in journalism with purpose and its power to change the world’. He also ‘believed in the journalist’s responsibility to use their trade for good. Pilger was instrumental in shaping the conscience and values of our title during Cudlipp’s Mirror of the ’60s and we remain perpetually grateful to him for instilling those ideals which we still hold dear today’, she wrote in The Daily Mirror on 31 December 2023.

Pilger’s work and writing are themselves a test of the evolution of news reportage and the nature of what the news will report. In that orientation, it was also clear that there are causes, and there are causes. Campaigning journalism may hail and trumpet, but be wary of what the objects are. As the Palestinian-American author Ramzy Baroud writes in Savage Minds, remembering Pilger’s work, ‘Those “leftists” are only against certain kinds of wars, especially if they perceive military interventions to be channelled by imperialist agendas. For them, so-called humanitarian intervention is morally justified, although there is no evidence that Western interventions of that kind ever bode well for any country’.

Pilger’s prodigious documentary work—he made sixty films—also had the most punching of effects, bulldozing the spin and turns of government publicists and marketing firms keen to bury unfavourable accounts. His first documentary, The Quiet Mutiny (1970), focused interest on the US war effort in Vietnam. The sand was duly marked by interviews with soldiers ordered to ‘shoot everything that moves … including the chicken, because it might be a Vietcong chicken’. The film ends with wounded soldiers being taken to a flight home, the background music by The Beatles: ‘Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away…’

Such work is impressive, earnest, adamant. At times it seems even shrill—a cry for recognition associated with those demanding unalloyed justice. But it is undeniably powerful and astonishingly personal. At times, Pilger’s own presence at a historical scene conveyed a personal touch:

On June 5 1968, just after midnight, Robert Kennedy was shot in my presence at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He had acknowledged his victory in the California primary. ‘On to Chicago and let’s win there!’ were his last public words, referring to the Democratic Party’s convention that would nominate a presidential candidate. ‘He’s the next President Kennedy!’ said the woman standing next to me.

Then the moment, unadorned, almost matter of fact: ‘She then fell to the floor with a bullet wound to the head. (She lived.)’.

His work was also all the better for focusing on personal stories—the lives of countless oppressed, tortured and murdered individuals vivified. Death of a Nation (1994) drew attention to the plight of the East Timorese with unsparing commitment. In collaboration with British cameraman Max Stahl, Pilger revealed that a second massacre of East Timorese wounded took place after the initial mass killings at the Santa Cruz cemetery by Indonesian forces in 1991. That bout of bloodletting took pace at both the Dili Morgue and the military hospital.

This showed Pilger to be unsparing in his chosen targets. In this report, Australia is lacerated for its connivance and complicity. It did not matter that the country’s steward at the time was a Labor government presided over by that most formidable of modernisers Paul Keating (he and his predecessor, Bob Hawke, were derided for eliminating ‘the most equitable spread of personal income on earth’). For Pilger, the blood of East Timor bled far, coagulating in the corridors of power in Canberra. Power proved insidious. He noted that Keating was ‘in the midst of preparing a highly secret “security pact” with Indonesia at the time that [sic] would essentially link Australian arms with General Suharto’s efforts to quash East Timor’. Gareth Evans, then Australia’s foreign minister, incensed Pilger by describing the Santa Cruz killings as an ‘aberration’ and writing with a triumphant note in the Melbourne Age on 6 June 1994 that ‘the balance of available evidence’ was against the occurrence of the second massacre that allegedly took place in November 1999.

Stealing a Nation (2004) showed the predatory ruthlessness of the United Kingdom’s clandestine, vicious expulsion of 1500 members of the Indigenous populace of the Chagos Islands to make way for Diego Garcia, a monstrous US military base. As Pilger says tartly at the start of the film, ‘There are times when one tragedy, one crime, tells us how a whole system works behind the democratic façade and helps us understand how much of the world is run for the benefit of the powerful and how governments often justify their actions with lies’. Such justifications would continue, with the UK government playing the environmental card in 2010 by establishing a marine nature reserve to, in the words of Colin Roberts of the Foreign Commonwealth Office, ‘prevent any of the Chagos Islands’ former inhabitants or descendants from resettling’.

In covering the lengthy record of Israeli violence against the Palestinians, the documentary Palestine Is Still the Issue (2003) is as relevant as ever. There, Israel’s politicians and soldiers come across atrociously as they impose and facilitate a regime of death, maiming, arrests and surveillance. Inevitably, the release of such a program—and here it was commendable that the ITV company Carlton initially took the plunge with it—sent the establishment into paroxysms of rage. Even Carlton’s own chairman, Michael Green, went so far as to decry the documentary as ‘a tragedy for Israel as far as accuracy is concerned’ in The Guardian. It was even more of a tragedy for the Palestinians; Green proceeded to unceremoniously sack Pilger, fulminating over confected charges of anti-Semitism.

As a sign that Pilger’s pungent journalism was far from single-sided with the express purpose of demonising the Jewish state, the Independent Television Commission (ITC) found in his favour, noting that there was ‘due impartiality’ in the program, and that it was ‘not in breach of the ITC programme code … Adequate opportunity was given to pro-Israeli perspective’. In what was a rather nice distillation of much of Pilger’s work, the ITC noted that, ‘Programme makers can come at subject matter from a particular direction so long as facts are respected and opposing viewpoints represented’.

And truth be told, Pilger’s labours, impressive in heft, noise and dedication, could be so committedly heavy as to be vulnerable. Some of the work did lend itself to criticism that was not always unsound. Taking the pamphleteering path and larding it with polemical weight will land you in occasional potholes, resulting in sprains. At times, such a declamatory approach might have the effect of obscuring the broader message.

Pilger was accused, for instance, of being uncritical when interviewing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez for the film War on Democracy. Reviews by Anthony Quinn in The Independent and A. A. Gill in the Sunday Times were not flattering. Quinn found Pilger’s voiceover methodology and intrusions into the shot suggestive of ‘excruciating vanity’. His approach to Chávez seemed ‘sycophantic’, and likely to ‘prompt suspicion’. Gill offered a further elaboration of the Pilger method: ‘Pilgerism: a particularly monotonous, self-righteous, partial and ism-bound view of the world, posing as journalism’.

Such a battery of criticism eventually earned Pilger an entry in the 1991 Oxford English Dictionary of New Words: the verb ‘to Pilger’, defined as ‘to conduct journalism in a manner supposedly characteristic of (Australian author and journalist) John Pilger’. The dictionary had the caustic satirist and conservative journalist Auberon Waugh—himself the offspring of one of England’s finest novelists and reactionaries, Evelyn Waugh—to thank for that. According to Waugh fils, writing in the Daily Telegraph,to Pilger entailed the following: ‘when anybody who wants to make a good argument shouts and waves his arms about a lot, and, oh, vaguely blames you for murdering Vietnamese babies’.

These blows may cast a small cloud over Pilger’s oeuvre but do nothing to shatter it. If he was impressed with Chávez, then so were millions who understood the vicious history of Venezuela, held hostage by sapping patronage, clientelism and a wealthy, landed elite. To the downtrodden, he was a meteoric, beaming chance for change, a representative of the downtrodden Amerindian class who spoke to them. As Pilger wrote, such rule was for the ‘ordinary people’:

the indigenous, the mestizos and Afro-Venezuelans, who had been held in historic contempt by Chavez’s immediate predecessors and by those who today live far from the barrios, in the mansions and penthouses of East Caracas, who commute to Miami where their banks are and who regard themselves as ‘white’. They are the powerful core of what the media calls ‘the opposition’.

To Washington, the Venezuelan leader was a spellbinding threat—a demagogue with a message of sharing the petroleum pie that never sat well with the desk mandarins and policy staff. In the battle of narratives, the one put forth by the US State Department will initially go far. It takes a Pilger to catch up and try to stomp on the babbling verbiage for the sake of balance.

That stomping work made Pilger the right sort of enemies. In 1975, the UK Foreign Office’s Information Research Department, a secret section dedicated to Cold War propaganda, opened a file on Pilger. It had been a year of some irritation for the bureaucrats of Whitehall, and Pilger’s work wasn’t helping to steady their nerves. As noted in Declassified, his program A Nod and Wink was regarded by IRD official Mrs J. O’Connor Howe as furnishing an all too ‘sympathetic treatment to the Shrewsbury pickets’, which had seen several trade unionists suffer wrongful convictions and imprisonment. Pilger had made the grade as a journalist: he had become a threat to the establishment.

Such enviably irritating qualities were bound to travel into various obituary notices. Oliver Kamm was shoddy with his observations in the Telegraph, attacking Pilger for being an apologist for genocide. This is rich stuff given the Australian’s work on exposing the murderous exploits of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. And Kamm, being a ham-acting court jester for mainstream publications and contacts, and therefore obeisance, was under the impression that Pilger’s spark somehow diminished with his ongoing radicalism. There goes the opinion of one who happily justifies the murderous exploits of one power—in this case Israel—over others.

Therein lies the rub. Pilger’s lengthy career marked the high-water mark for a certain type of journalism that could still at the time make it into various mainstream outlets. This eventually altered. John Rees, cofounder of the Stop the War Coalition, puts it rather well in Jacobin: ‘It is difficult to imagine now that a major TV channel, one of only three at the time, would give a documentary spot that ran for an hour before the main evening news to John Pilger. And impossible to think that it would happen today, even despite the proliferation of TV channels’.

Most appropriately, Pilgerism, the Pilger form or whatever you wish to call it came full circle with the arrival of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. It took some time to get there. Pilger ended his lengthy stint at The Daily Mirror with the ascension of Robert Maxwell, the ruthlessly corrupt press mogul who wished to outdo Rupert Murdoch and make himself the dominant star in the paper trade. Pilger made a stab at creating his own guerilla information outlet, the News on Sunday, intended as a proletarian assault on the wealthy press barons. It did not last.

Then came WikiLeaks. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2012, Assange was adamant about who his most critical public supporter had been: ‘John Pilger, the Australian journalist, has been the most impressive’. Pilger was left particularly stung by the way British justice was stacked and oiled against Assange, who is currently facing extradition to the United States for charges under the Espionage Act of 1917 for disclosing classified information. Pilger wrote for the World Socialist Web Site that he had, certainly till the UK High Court hearing in 2021, ‘believed that the country’s senior judges would reject the US appeal and reclaim something of the mythologised notion of British justice if only for the system’s survival, which partly depends on “face” within the arcane reaches of the British establishment’. In the case of Assange, the facts were ‘surely too outrageous—no properly constituted court would even consider it—yet I was wrong’.

Such a view is revealing in and of itself. For all his cynicism about power and its role, Pilger could still be charmingly devoted to notions that institutions might turn, or at the very least come good in some way. Expose the wrong, encourage the correction. The fact that the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales could accept US ‘assurances’ made after the fact, essentially to manufacture a basis for Assange’s extradition, ‘was quite shocking. There was no justice, no process; the guile and ruthlessness of US power was on show. Might is right’.

For Pilger, might was always wrong, even if he had a particular fixation on the effects induced by the Anglosphere, Empire and its fellow conspirators. They do, after all, have much to answer for. His last piece, reflecting on Israel’s campaign in Gaza, makes that point starkly: ‘The Palestinians are Spartacus. People who fill the streets with flags and principle and solidarity are Spartacus. We are all Spartacus if we want to be’.

Eyewitness to the Agony of Julian Assange

John Pilger, 2 Oct 2020

I have sat in many courts and seldom known such a perversion of due process. This is due revenge.

About the author

Binoy Kampmark

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

More articles by Binoy Kampmark

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.

Leave a Reply